Secret weapon: Airmen initiative can shape our future

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Darryl W. Burke
  • 82nd Training Wing commander
Anyone who has served in or around the military has a favorite story they love to tell about the frustrations of dealing with "the bureaucracy."

We're not always so willing to admit that sometimes we're part of the problem. We like to think of the bureaucracy as a formless entity out there slowing down the work we need to get done. But the truth is that bureaucracy is often us.

If we're honest with ourselves, we'll recognize we've all had our moment in the bureaucratic sun, a time when we were too overwhelmed or too tired--or too afraid--to deal with change or new ideas. After all, saying "no" is easy and safe, and facilitating change is hard and risky.

Bureaucracy is not so much a thing as it is an attitude. It says "no" to an idea without really considering it. It's what makes people say, "But we've always done it this way." It focuses on why we can't, instead of on how we can.

But here's the cold, hard truth: the Air Force can't afford to have its leaders at any level take the bureaucratic approach to doing business.

Our fleet is aging, our infrastructure is getting older, our personnel, medical, and entitlement costs are rising and the budget is tightening. After nearly 20 years of continuous combat operations, we are asking more and more of fewer people. In this climate, we just cannot afford to adopt a "just say no" attitude toward new ways of thinking.

What we need instead is a culture of initiative.

Today's Airmen are the smartest and most creative we've ever had. They've grown up in an era of unprecedented innovation, they are wired to think differently and they have the enthusiasm to drive the change we need.

In Haiti, I witnessed firsthand what happens when you let Airmen lead out and take initiative. Airmen were on the ground in Haiti within 24 hours of the devastating January earthquake. Twenty-eight minutes after their boots hit the ground, they were controlling air traffic. In a week, they were safely landing 164 aircraft a day at an airfield that normally handled a tenth of that traffic.

While that was going on, an Air Force Expeditionary Medical team arrived. There were no safe buildings to operate from, so they cleared a space on the sidewalk and went to work caring for the injured. By the time the U.S. Navy hospital ship USS Comfort arrived off shore on Jan. 20, Air Force medics had been at work for a week.

Our Airmen didn't wait around for someone to tell them what to do or how to do it. There were no manuals to tell them how to operate in a country where the infrastructure had been utterly destroyed and half a million people killed or injured.

But they seized the initiative and did miraculous things.

I saw the same thing as commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. Faced with what seemed like an unending stream of challenges, I learned that the secret to success was to unleash the creative genius of Airmen. Given the chance, they took the initiative and found solutions I could never have imagined.

A wise man once said, "It's hard to win a horserace when you're hollerin' 'whoa!'" Well, we're in a horserace of sorts. From strain on our people to strain on our budgets, the pressure is on. At the end of this race, will we remain the world's greatest Air, Space and Cyberspace force?

I'm confident we will, if we follow in the footsteps of those who came before us and stop "hollerin' whoa!" Our predecessors did not build the mighty U.S. Air Force of today by taking the easy road and wrapping themselves or their careers in bureaucratic safety. Instead of saying, "No!" they said, "Why not?"

Challenging the boundaries of what's possible is our heritage. If we want to win this horserace, we have to unleash our greatest and most powerful resource--our young officers and enlisted Airmen and their untapped well of genius.

Leadership is the key. Will we allow the innovative ideas of our Airmen to become casualties of bureaucracy because we are afraid of change or of failure? Or will we do all we can to expose their ideas to the light of day, and take a chance on them?

If we choose the first course, we doom ourselves to a future of mediocrity--nothing truly great is accomplished by people acting out of fear.

If we choose the second course--as those who came before us did--the possibilities are limitless.

We are the U.S. Air Force, and we overcome impossible challenges by doing what others say is impossible. The secret is initiative: if we give our Airmen the freedom to shape the future, they will win the day.